Overgeneralization is a common type of error in thinking or reasoning. Overgeneralization varies from mild to extreme, and can take different forms:
- Seeing a pattern or trend as being stronger or more regular than it is. (Not seeing exceptions to the rules.)
- Applying a generalization beyond the scenario in which it is true or to a broader class of situations or objects or people than the one in which the generalization is truly valid.
- (More extreme form) Seeing a pattern or general trend when none exists, by selectively focusing on the individual cases that support the generalization.
- (Most extreme form) Seeing a single, isolated event as a pattern or trend.
Overgeneralization can happen in written arguments, in people's thoughts (especially people who are suffering from anxiety and depression), and in political dialogue. It also can happen as an error in statistical analysis or mathematical reasoning, or the reasoning in scientific or other academic research.
Overgeneralization as a Cognitive Distortion:
Many psychological disorders, including depression and generalized anxiety disorder, are characterized in large part by chronic and often extreme overgeneralization. In depression, a person overgeneralizes each negative event or series of negative events into a universal pattern of negative events, instead of looking at the events in isolation. For example, a depressed person may fail at a specific task, and respond by thinking thoughts or telling themselves things like: I'm a failure, I'm never going to succeed, or I can't do anything right. Or a depressed person might ask a person on a date and think: no one would want to go on a date with me.
Overgeneralization is also at the root of hatred directed at groups of people. For example, a person may see crimes committed by a member or members of a certain race, sex, or religion, and conclude something negative about the whole group.
Preventing And Moving Beyond Overgeneralizations:
It can be hard to convince others to see and stop their own overgeneralizations. Sometimes, pointing to a specific counterexample can help people see their errors in reasoning, but in situations with a lot of conflict and tension, this can be difficult as people get stubborn and defensive. The easiest and most natural way to start, if you are interested in preventing overgeneralization, is to become more aware of the cases in which you make this error in your own reasoning. Whenever you think about something emotionally charged, try to make lists of pros and cons, and try to come up with examples of things that support your argument as well as those that seem to contradict it. This will help you learn how to generalize the right amount, no more, no less. And this approach can help you to achieve clear thinking.
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